Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Importance of Family History - Finding Your Roots

Some years ago, my Riley cousins and I decided we needed to get together once a year to go on an adventure. Last year they went tubing down the San Marcos River in San Marcos. Now, imagine a bunch of women in their 60s trying to get out of those inner tubes without landing on their heads. Alas, I didn't get to participate in that activity as I had to help my daughter that day. 

A few years ago, we decided to visit our grandmother Riley's birthplace and discover our roots. Three of us piled in a car and made the trip to Gizzard Cove, Tennessee also called The Gizzard. The log cabin where our grandmother, Martha Comfort Pyburn Riley, was born in the late 1880s is still standing and in use today.

Fortunately, we'd contacted distant cousins in the area, whom we'd never met, and they took us to The Gizzard and showed us around. The house has been added on to several times and is now stuccoed. 

I wish I could remember all of the stories they told us about the Gizzard during the Civil War. I should have taken notes. Check out Wikipedia to learn how the Fiery Gizzard got it's name and also The Fiery Gizzard Trail, a favorite site for overnight hikers.

Martha Pyburn's mother died when she was 16. In that day and time, few men stayed widowers long as they needed someone to care for their young children. When Martha's father remarried, his new wife forced Martha and her older brothers to move out of the family home. She moved to Texas to live with relatives where some years later she met and married John Riley. 

In the picture to the left, Martha was 18 years old. On the right we assume she was in her twenties.

Our great-grandmother was an Anderson and we knew she was buried in the Anderson Cemetery in Gizzard Cove. While there we insisted on looking for her grave. We were warned that it was terribly overgrown because the Cemetery Committee hadn't had its annual clean-up event, but we insisted. We were early in the summer. The heat and humidity were already uncomfortable. I shuddered to think what it would be like pulling weeds and cutting back vines in full summer. 

Against the advice of the people on whose land the cemetery sat, we decided to venture inside anyway to look for our great-grandmother, Lavinia Anderson Pyburn's headstone. Lavinia is pictured to the left. Stepping carefully and stirring the bushes with a stick to avoid rattlesnakes, we trudged through the weeds. Unfortunately, we were unable to find Lavinia's headstone. We ended our search early because our legs started stinging a little. A little turned into a lot. The cemetery was full of bull nettle. We were miserable for a few hours. This was my first run-in with the weed/plant and hopefully my last.

To the right is a picture of our great-great-grandmother Pyburn. She was full Cherokee Indian. I would loved to have had a chance to visit with her and learn what it was like back in her day.

Unfortunately, as young people we didn't listen when our parents and grandparents talked about the past and our ancestors. Now, they are all gone and we have no one to ask. One of our cousins has become involved with and she's garnered a great deal of information and pictures of the family. We're proud that she's gathering this data for future generations. She's even learned we are related to Shakespeare.  Distantly, of course.        

I'm glad we made the trip to Gizzard Cove and can share our experience with other family members. How about you? Have you searched out your roots? If your parents or grandparents are still living, gather as much information as you can. Encourage them to write names on the backs of pictures so future generations will know who they are.

I love to go antiquing and am amazed at how many old family portraits are being sold, mainly for the frames. What a tragedy their descendants don't have them to share with their children.

Leave a comment and share your experiences with us.

Thanks for stopping by today!



  1. I am so happy you posted this! I am a campaigner for people to write down all their memories and save them for future generations. I also urge people to carefully write names on the back of photos in a way that doesn't damage the photo over time. In addition, I've compiled two books, one on my mom's family and one on my mother-in-law, and am in the midst of completing one on my dad's family. This keeps those stories in a permanent form for posterity. I include lots of photos in the books, each labeled with names and as much as I know about the year and location. So, good for you for trying to preserve your family's photos and stories.

  2. I'm an amateur genealogist myself so I enjoyed your story. I know the joy of the adventure you shared with your cousins. A few years ago I went to Missouri where most of my ancestors were from and a cousin took me everywhere, doing research and visiting cemeteries. I got to stand on my great-grandparent's land and know how it looked. It was a sort of eerie feeling but very fulfilling.

  3. Hi Linda, I am searching roots right now. I won a genealogy search at the silent auction fundraiser for testicular cancer. (My husband is a survivor who just got the CURE word.)

    I too am so sad when I see antique photos and tintypes at flea markets. The history, the beauty, and no one cares. Sheesh. I also get sad at neglected graves.

    Great post today.

  4. Good for you, Caroline. Your children and grandchildren will cherish the books you've put together. I don't know where you live, but here in Waco, Baylor will often put a copy of books such as yours in The Texas Collection so others can benefit from them.

    There is a small community outside of Waco that has a reunion every year. Relatives from both sides of my family were always there and now they have pictures of when the community center was built on the walls and my grandparents are in them. One Sunday a year folks meet for church services and then share a covered dish lunch. Boy, talk about hearing some old stories. It's wonderful!

  5. Hi Charlene, I wish I could get the family researching bug, but I'd rather spend my time writing. Isn't it amazing what seeing an ancestor's gravestone does to you? I bet that eerie feeling and standing on your great-granparen'ts land was wonderful. Nothing can compare seeing and experiencing it yourself.

  6. Are you having a good time with it, Tanya. Everyone I know who does genealogy loves it and becomes obsessive almost. I've even driven a friend from west Texas around Waco searching for one of her ancestor's graves.

    I'm so glad to hear your hubby is cancer free now. A weight off both of your shoulders.

    I'm with you. I know often family members didn't know the items were being sold off or they'd have wanted them. My mother and I were at an auction one time and a lady was crying because who ever was in control of the estate didn't ask the others if they wanted anything. Someone took a large portrait out of a frame and gave it to her.

  7. Hey, Linda--you're off track a bit! The Guadalupe River is in New Braunfels, not San Marcos.
    Which river is in San Marcos? The San Marcos River! And you can go toobin' in either one.
    So, where were you?

    I best love old vintage photos. They are so appealing and intriguing. I love to study the faces, the clothing, the hairstyles, and the background.They can tell us so much.
    My sister and I have tromped through cememteries in Palo Pinto County, Parker County--these two especially, and others in surrounding small communities and private cememteries on ranches.
    I swear, you and I and Caroline are all related.
    Family history is so important. My sisters and I have had about 25 old photos reproduced so we'd all have the same ones. (3 sisters are like that--what one has, all must have.)My older sister is the keeper of all original artifacts, which is a closet in her house.

    I'm proud of you for keeping up with your family history. Will any of our children or grandchildren care at all? And what about two of my grandson, who are adopted and black? Bless their hearts, they will have no idea where they came from. It breaks my heart.

    Thanks for a wonderful trip down your memory lane.

  8. Caroline--I own a book titled The Double Log Cabin, the History of Parker County, and a Brief Symposium of the Early History of Parker County, Together With Short Biographical Sketches Of Early Settlers and Their Trials.

    I've worn out this book.
    There's a lot about Cynthia Parker and her entire family.
    Sorry, Linda...I had to get this in.

  9. Goodness, Celia, it's the San Marcos River. We have some beautiful old pictures of Larry's family. His aunt had them stored in the chicken house for ages. Two of them have the curved glass and curved frames. We've had copies made of some of them for the rest of the family.

    I don't know about our children. No one is interested or has time yet.

  10. No problem, Celia. Larry had a distant relative related to Cynthia Ann. He was also a doctor and had to ride miles to see his patients, sometime chased by Indians. At least that's the way the story goes. You know how some of this oral history can be.

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  12. Okay, my turn to get into the discussion. I was one of the cousins who actually went tubing, and we were just outside New Braunfels. We didn't go to San Marcus until the last day with Linda.

    What important thing Linda left out about the cemetery outing was that while she was scratching her ankles and about ready to quit, I was rounding out the outer edge of the gravestones. I picked up a foot and happened to look down, saw a large coiled snake below me and carefully pivoted on the other foot and said, "snake, I'm done" and was out of that fenced in area in about 4 leaping steps! I will say that it was one of the most thrilling times of my life I am the official family tree person with the stories and pictures, and I'm pretty much addicted to it. As we were driving through the area in front of our grandmother's birthplace, I tried to block out the 'dish' on the roof and just imagine her making the walk to the spring across the way for water like she'd told my mother and I countless stories. I swear I could feel her spirit along with our parents. In my mind I was saying, "mom, this is for you". We saw a family of turkeys in the prairie grass and had to stop for photos. One of our relatives was one of the first white men to enter the area.

    Like Linda said, Martha (grandma) lost her mother while she was a teenager, and Martha's twin brothers were just 3 years old when the mother just fell dead in the yard. Back then the cornfield came right pretty close to the house, and Lavina (sometimes spelled with/without a second i) died between the house and the cornfield. They brought her into the house and laid her on the bed, and all the children who were left just stood there looking at her. A few days later everyone was out in the area between the house and the cornfield and as it got about dusk, they said that they saw their mama walking out from the cornfield. She stopped and looked at the for a few moments, turned around and went back into the cornfield. You have to know that our grandmother would never saw something like that unless it really happened. On of mother's cousins reminded me about this a couple of weeks ago. All of the children witnessed it. Isn't that just too cool!!

    I love cemeteries as well, Celia. I belong to and receive requests to take pictures of graves in my area. I love it. All cemeteries are listed with most interments. And the majority of them have an association which has a plat of all the plots which makes finding graves easier, but some will only tell you a section area which can still be pretty large.

    Great post, Linda. Who knows where we will end up this year.

  13. Wonderful post, Linda. How cool you were able to learn so much about your family. Love those old photos too!

  14. Oh yes, I forgot to say one cousin almost stepped on a snake. She went farther then I did.

    I didn't know the cornfield story. Anna is younger than I and spent more time with her. I was away at college. Plus, her memory is better than mine.

  15. Thank you, Cate. It was a trip our parents would be so proud we made. Anna is the one with most of the pictures. Her mother took care of Grandma when she was no longer able to stay by herself and ended up with most of the pictures. Which is a good thing!


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